Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

This isn’t a proper review, I just read the book and adored it. If you’ve read Olive Kitteridge (my review is here) you’ll have loved it and you’ll love this. I had to stop every now and then and cry – it’s a triumph and may also have smashed my heart a little. I really admire the way Strout reveals profound truths about the human experience so lightly. Buy it, borrow it, read it. (But be prepared to pause and think, oof, yes, that’s it, right there, the truth of love and death and loneliness and age and feel the fragility of our silly lives.)

Eat Better Forever by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

I was pleased to receive a review copy of this and it’s an excellent guide to eating better so very much does what it says on the tin. The difficulty I had was having just finished rereading Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s book, The 4 Pillar Plan, which offers pretty similar advice, I didn’t learn much new. I do thoroughly recommend this for anyone keen to learn in a non-preachy way how to eat in a body-friendly way. Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall explains his 7 steps very clearly and it would be hard to argue with anything. None of this is startling; eat wholefoods, cut out sugar, move more, drink water not booze, etcetera. The first half of the book is given over to explaining the 7 steps and the second half has some nifty recipes. Despite there being a lot of kimchi, kefir, sprouts and seeds (like, of course, we should all eat healthily but it’s bloody hard to fancy kimchi and sprouts instead of pizza) I also found plenty of delicious recipes. I try and make my own soup for lunches each week but have been in a bit of a rut (carrot soup, carrot and spinach, leeks and onions and spinach etc.) so it was good to discover some combos that hadn’t occurred to me like Hugh’s Beans & Greens Summer Soup and his Store Cupboard Tomato & Bean Soup. For some reason, I’d also forgotten that there’s more to tinned fish than tuna and really fancy trying Sardine Mayo with Capers & Red Onion (maybe hold the capers) and will definitely open some of the tinned mackerel that’s been in my cupboard for years.

If you’d like to know more there’s a good description of the book written by the man himself here.

Smash Lits with Aaron Burch

I published Aaron Burch’s CNF The Idea of it All at this week at The Forge. I love how this tiny piece builds, how poignant it is. And I got to interview Aaron too.

1) What would your superhero power be?

So, I have this lesson plan built around this This American Life segment about flight vs. invisibility. I use it every semester, it’s one of my faves. I always start class that day by having my students do a 5 minute freewrite where they have to answer, If they could have one superpower—flight OR invisibility—which would it be? I’ve done it so many times, that my kneejerk response is to make your broad question an either/or one, in which case, I’d say flight.

2) What is your default pub drink?

Either beer or whiskey. IF the pub has a cheap beer + whiskey combo, I’ll get that, although very rarely will if they don’t specifically offer it as a combo, preferably with a bar specific word for it, like a “happy meal” or “beer and a bump” or “the regular.”

3) What was the last text you sent?


4) Your writing is music, what style is it?

Some kind of doom or death metal that is sometimes slow and melodic and instrumental and sometimes gets heavy with riffs and accompanying screaming? Maybe (ideally?) it’s the Jack Black hidden track on Dave Grohl’s heavy metal side project, Probot, where it’s a pretty heavy rock song but also laughy?

5) What is the oldest piece of clothing in your wardrobe?

Probably one of my band shirts from high school?

6) Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?

No. Although I do believe that that makes me boring.

7) What sandwiches would you make for a picnic with Margaret Atwood?


8) What’s your favourite swear?

I wanna be creative here but it’s probably just “fuck.” it’s such a great all-purpose word.

9) If there was a TV show called The Masked Writer, what would your costume be?

Probably a buffalo, although that might give me away.

10) Who is your favourite TV detective?

Jason Schwartzman as Jonathan Ames on Bored to Death.

11) What is your favourite smell?

This last week it has been a freshly sharpened pencil.

12) What was your first concert?

MC Hammer.

13) What is your phone screensaver?

This skull I painted.

14) What is your favourite cheese?


15) Who is your favourite Sesame Street character?


16) What colour is Tuesday? 


17) Have you ever had a nickname?

Not really? A couple of my friends call me Hobart. My invisible friend when I was little was “Leafy” and sometimes my best friend will break that out.

18) Do you have a favourite pen?

Pilot G-2s, and though I believe myself to be in the wrong in this, I go back and forth between preferring the 05 and 07. I actually like each for different purposes.

19) Have you chosen your funeral song?

No. I’ll be dead, I don’t care.

20) Write me a question for the next Smash List interview I do.

What two emoji smashed together best encapsulate you?

Smash Lits with Angela Readman

I was delighted to publish a wonderful flash by Angela Readman at The Forge – you can read A Quiet Like This here. And she kindly took part in an interview too.

1) What is your superpower?

I can make anything & anyone smell of loads and loads of garlic. Think about, I can make everyone fancy pizza, even the pizza disapprovers. I can stop people talking mid-sentence, suddenly aware of their breath. I can stop anyone standing too close and make all kisses a bit awkward.

2) What is your favourite cheese?

I had this swanky cheese that was wild garlic and mushroom. Just once. I have never been able to find it since. It is now the legend of dairy. Somewhere the stall holder who sold it is laughing at the curse he put on me for having too many cheese samples.

3) What was the last text you sent?

I haven’t sent a text in over 2 years. I think it was probably Help, I am lost in the Metrocentre.

4) Who is/was your unlikely crush?

Captain Birdseye. Harley Quinn. Gomez Addams.

5) Bacon VS Tofu—who wins? Why?

Bacon. I haven’t eaten meat in over 30 years, so I just hang around greasy spoons sniffing people. I arrived late to tofu, I didn’t try it until a few years ago. It’s OK, but whenever I have it I am filled with a sense of is this it? Am I doing it wrong?

6) Your writing is music, what style is it?

I’d like to say something cool like blues, but it is probably more like one of those strange mash-ups of Nine Inch Nails doing Shake it Off with Taylor Swift.

7) What makes the wind blow?

The whispers of all the things your old invisible friends are saying behind your back.

8) Have you ever had your fortune told?

I went to a psychic fair once when it was raining. A spiritual healer put his hands on the back of my head and told me the spirits were telling him to give me his phone number. I didn’t call.

9) Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

Joe Mangle.

10) Did you have an invisible friend when you were younger?

Yes, but he said we should see other people. He went to Orkney and took my invisible cat with him.

11) What did you do last Saturday night?

Drank a beer, looked out the window, talked about owls.

12) Do you have any recurring dreams?

I dream I can fly, but it’s in an odd way. I sort of hover in doorways. I also sometimes dream Keanu Reeves is making me lemon tea, always lemon. He serves it in a china cup and is always wearing white trousers and flip flops.

13) What sandwiches would you make for a picnic with Curtis Sittenfeld?

I don’t think I know a sandwich good enough, the egg with salad cream I make won’t cut it. I might have to do something with aubergine. There’d be salad. I would apologise that I don’t know anything about pomegranates. I’d make a flask of Yorkshire Tea with sweet soya milk and we’d drink from Moomin mugs.

14) What is your favourite smell?

Hardware shops, freshly cut wood, that smell like an engine is being fixed.

15) What’s your favourite swear?


16) What word or words make you cringe? 

Flange, actually, necessarily, anyhoo, feisty.

17) Who is your favourite TV detective?

Agent Cooper.

18) Write me a question for the next Smash List interview I do.

If there was a TV show called The Masked Writer, what would your costume be?

19) What is the last thing you Googled?

Epicurious 4 levels Mac & Cheese. I also like watching videos of robot lawn mowers for no reason. They are incredibly calming.

20) What question should I have asked you?

What’s the last song lyric that got stuck in your head? Fool’s Garden, Lemon Tree, ‘And nothing ever happens, and I wonder…’

The House On the Corner by Alison Woodhouse

It’s astonishing how The House On the Corner takes us through eight years of the King family in just forty-five pages. How can a novella in flash have the feel of a saga? Each chapter adds layers to our understanding of the Kings. Woodhouse is skilled at taking her deftly drawn characters and revealing the quiet sadness inside them. There’s magic here in what’s unspoken. We recognise these people trying to make life work despite the disappointments. This is a tender look at a family; subtle, achy and memorable.

Signed copies are available from Alison’s website.

Nine Endings at Hobart

Thank you, Aaron Burch, for publishing Nine Endings at Hobart. (My first piece of nonfiction – which turns out to feel pretty exposing. Who knew, right?) Hobart has long been a journal I hoped I’d one day find a way into and I’m pretty damn chuffed. If you’d like to, you can read Nine Endings here.

Excellence in Prison Libraries Award 2020

I work in a prison library and alongside all usual library duties, I also run a creative writing group. I began it a couple of years ago when some of the prisoners said they’d really enjoyed a one-day poetry workshop and would appreciate the opportunity for a more regular creative outlet. As a writer and editor, I figured it was something I could offer to add value to our library. And so it began…

When I can, I run the group weekly. Each session begins with the men reading out the previous week’s homework – if they want to and if they have done it, neither homework nor sharing is compulsory. Then I set a writing exercise using prompts and the guys write for about 10 minutes and again share that work. I finish up by reading a story, usually flash, that highlights something we’re working on, or is simply good, and set the following weeks homework.

The trickiest thing is trying to make sure the exercises are enjoyable for everyone as there is such a wide variety of men who join. I like to think I create a safe space. Once you start writing and sharing work you reveal something of yourself and I have consistently been impressed by the respect and support these guys offer each other. I’ve been lucky enough to have some excellent people take part. I’ve been moved to tears by some of the stories and moved to laughter by others.

I was invited to give a presentation on running a creative writing group last year at the Prison Libraries Training Day held by CILIP which was well received. This month I was delighted to discover I have won the Excellence in Prison Libraries Award 2020 and one of the reasons given was because after my presentation several other prison libraries began creative writing groups. I’m so unbelievably chuffed. I truly believe creative writing is a powerful thing to do in a prison – or anywhere! Writing can be cathartic. It can be healing. It can be a release for all sorts of emotion. It can also be daft, shallow, and just for fun.

Anyway, I’m showing off and popping this here:

Excellence in Prison Libraries Award 2020 winner

The CILIP Prison Libraries Group is delighted to announce that the 2020 Excellence in Prison Libraries Award has been won by HMP Ford for its “Well-being Through Creative Writing” project. The project was devised and is run by Sara Crowley, Senior Library Assistant at HMP Ford. Sara is also a writer and Managing Editor of Forge literary magazine.

The project began as a six-week trial but became so successful that the group now runs weekly. They meet in the library and, as well as exploring creative writing, they also discuss reading. Sara is keen to point out that it’s not all serious – “we play word games, enjoy puns, tell jokes and laugh a lot. The men learn to express themselves better which is a useful transferable skill.”

The reaction from the men involved has been overwhelmingly positive:

“It’s been a great release for my stress. I’m so grateful.”

“It’s very calming and helps my mental health.”

“It gives me a means to reflect creatively; managing my emotions.”

“It’s a nice break from prison each week with the ability to unload in a safe space.”

Participants are encouraged to share their work if they wish to and some have entered national writing competitions – one member of the group won the East Riding Poetry competition.

The group has also been visited by some high-profile poets and writers, including Simon Brett, who have shared their knowledge and expertise.

The judges were particularly impressed with the way that this project works in a variety of situations. Sara has done sessions with literacy classes in the prison and with groups of library users “outside.”

Sara was invited to give a presentation on running creative writing groups at the Prison Libraries Group training day in 2019. She outlined the activities of her group and then engaged the delegates in various word play activities to show how easy it is to create stories. As a result of this presentation, several prison libraries have started groups based on this model.

This is an excellent example of how a project can inspire not just those taking part in it but can also reach out to a wider audience.


CILIP Prison Libraries Group – info.prlg@cilip.org.uk

The hell that is endometriosis


Mine is a familiar story. I was in total agony every time I had a period. In my teen years and twenties, I always knew at least 2 days of the month would be spent curled in a ball, weeping, puking, trying to breathe my way through the worst pain in the world. I had days off school. I walked out of classrooms and exams because I needed to vomit. (Nobody ever suggested I retook one A level that was completely messed up by my period and me walking out after only half an hour.) Nobody ever said being so sick wasn’t ok; hot water bottle, ibuprofen and bed was the only thing on offer. It didn’t touch the pain which was an endurance to get through. Now we have people like Professor John Guilleaud (University College, London) saying menstrual pain for some is as bad as having a heart attack. Back then I was told I had a low pain tolerance. I thought everyone suffered as I did but I was weak. (Hollow laugh.)

It was a matter of knowing it would end. That day one was worse than day two. I just had to keep breathing. Work was tricky. I knew I’d be ill once a month so I could never afford to have any other sick leave. I only had a small window once my period started before I began vomiting, so travelling home from the centre of London was nerve wracking. I have puked in a lot of public places. It just added to the humiliation.

It ruined holidays, parties, romantic encounters, fun, work, play.

A gynaecologist told me I was perfectly healthy and would get better after I gave birth. She was wrong!

On the ward after my emergency caesarean, I didn’t ask for pain relief and a nurse asked why. The truth was the pain was nowhere near the pain I endured every damn month – it was a breeze in comparison. After the boys were born, contrary to what I’d been told, it got far worse and I was in excruciating pain for 3 weeks out of 4. I was dismissed by the doctors, told I was neurotic. Despite me insisting the pain was all related to my menstrual cycle, I was told it was probably IBS. It’s hard to keep going when professionals tell you there’s nothing much wrong with you and your body insists otherwise. It took eight years before I had a laparoscopy which showed I was chock full of endometriosis. Bits of my insides were glued to each other. It was such a relief to be told that I would have a simple operation – “a spring clean” – and all would be well.

Of course, all was not well. There is no cure for endometriosis. With my first period post surgery, back came the pain.

No treatment is perfect. No treatment cures. They dampen symptoms but produce their own side effects. Mine lists the following: abdominal/pelvic pain, ovarian cysts, back pain, headache/migraine, nervousness, dizziness, nausea, bloating, breast pain, weight gain, acne, depression, changes in mood, loss of interest in sex, itching/skin rash, and puffiness in the face, hands, ankles, or feet. Such fun!

People don’t know what endo is, or they think they do and imagine it’s a bad crampy period. There’s no recognition of how debilitating it is. How destructive. How it ruins lives.

I sometimes wonder what I could have achieved if I wasn’t derailed by this damn condition so often. I know there’s no point on dwelling on what-ifs though and bumble on as best I can, but it niggles at me. Just when I make headway on a project along comes the endo to fell me. Everything I do has to be done when I can manage it and everything is stop-start.

That things still haven’t improved in the decades I have suffered says much about the lack of importance afforded to women’s issues. It’s heartening to see #endometriosis trending on twitter, but watching this video is heartbreaking.

Hell yes, endometriosis care needs urgent improvement.

I just found this drawing of me aged 17 in the midst of a period. Drawn by my best pal then and now, Lisa Bailey.

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